The rule of 3: How to help evolve your client

By Mike Clark of

Do you ever feel like a note taker instead of a creative problem solver?

Has a buyer ever sketched out what they want for you, and said, “I’m practically designing it for you?”

If you’ve ever dealt with a buyer who wants something very specific, and they’re telling you the solution instead of the problem, I have a method that will help.

First, know that this buyer, who wants something very specific, is frightened. They’re frightened you won’t get it, or you’ll come up with something completely off the mark. So they play it safe. They devise a solution (that probably looks like all the product’s competitors) and they instruct you, very precisely.

You need a non-scary way to evolve your clients.

Over the years, I’ve developed an evolution method of sorts.  It’s less about the creative process, and more about crossing the bridge to where your clients feel comfortable. (Read: 6 tips to wow the left brainers)

Use The Rule of Three.

By giving your client three layouts, you can help them evolve—in a way that feels comfortable for them.

Layout 1 – I unplug my right brain and do exactly what this buyer asked for. I try not to die of boredom in the process. I come up with a design that’s safe, humdrum, and that we’ve all seen a million times. Ultimately, your buyer knows this layout is safe. They’ve already seen in the marketplace.

Layout 2 – This is my interpretation of what they wanted.  If in the creative brief, they kept saying “natural,” I interpret how “natural” makes me feel. Layout number says “natural,” but not as super literally as Layout 1. It solves the problem. When they look at Layout 2, my buyers say, “He got in my head and figured out what I really meant.” (Of course this is based on the shelf—because I always start at the beginning.) (link to Are you Really Starting at the Beginning.)

Layout 3 – This layout is out there. If it’s “natural,” it’s practically a box of dirt. It’s the design that wins the award, but doesn’t necessarily sell at the shelf. This design is what your buyer was painfully afraid of happening if you didn’t follow their absolute direction. It scares them back to layout 2 which the one you wanted them to go with.

Eventually, you’ll gain your buyers trust. They’ll get better at choosing.  After a year, Layout 2 starts to look safe, and you can help them become even better at solving problems by pushing them further.

This approach lets me do what I do best—but in a way that is best for the client, too.

InHouse Designer Blog

About Andy Brenits

Andy Brenits is President of the Board of Directors at InSource, the professional association for in-house creative leaders and managers. He is also a creative consultant advising individuals and business owners on brand strategy, creative management, and what it takes to differentiate yourself consistently in a crowded market. He has previously lead creative teams at GAP, Banana Republic, NFL, KPMG, and Arizona Public Service. 

7 thoughts on “The rule of 3: How to help evolve your client

  1. Rebecca

    Great theory, but I find that showing my clients “what they wanted” is dangerous because they (unfortunately) almost always pick that option, as hum-drum as it is. Although, I haven’t tried the technique of adding an additional design that is waaay outside the box, to use as a sounding board. We’ll see how this works for me. 🙂

  2. Susan

    I’m not sure I agree either. The client will always pick the thing that looks closest to what they drew on the white-board. But if you get them off drawing and into writing what they want in the form of keywords, your life is easier! Then sketches 1 through 3 all show direct connections to the very words that they generated. You can say, “See how #1 emphasizes the “natural” concept you were talking about?” and then #2 perhaps the “natural” is secondary to another keyword they’ve provided, such as “Corporate” or “Solid” or “Friendly” or whatever. Rule to live by: The Client Always Picks the Ugly One. So don’t ever, ever show an ugly one (even if it is just to prove a point).

  3. DanZ

    I think only those who are a bit more open-minded or those who have been buying graphics for say at least a year will take the layout 2 option. Of course right,… perfect world kinda thing. The only time I had such a client change his mind is when I showed him ONLY the layout he described and then explained why it was so boring. Once he agreed, he still needed to ‘art direct’ the next round, which was better, but not layout 2 either. Bottom line is this type of ‘fearful’ client is none other than a control freak, which makes sense because that type of person lives in fear. So I give what they want if they’re paying enough and move on to a better client.

  4. Suzanne Oberholtzer

    Something that I’ve learned (and we know lessons can be painful) and I often share with my team is not to present anything to the client that they are not comfortable with as a final solution. So, for that “way out there” layout, it better not be so far out there that it’s a problem when for some crazy reason the client decides they like it. I don’t want to present anything to clients that won’t achieve the objectives of the project, even if it does win a design award. Good design is not art for art’s sake.

  5. Pammy B

    This is a very touchy area. On one had you want your client to give direction. On the other hand you don’t exactly want them to design the project. I’m left thinking did they only need me for execution? However if they have a good idea, I need to be gracious about it. My feelings get hurt when I’m not allowed to be the creative problem solver. That being said I have to tell myself it’s not about me. That is hard to learn. It is even harder not to show your hurt or defensive side.

  6. P Bay

    What a timely article. The business manager I do freelance ad work for retired and was replaced by a young marketing graduate who thinks she is a designer. I was thinking of dropping the client, but will try your suggestion first (well, a variation of your suggestion as I am in agreement that a client wil ALWAYS pick the ugly design).